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Wittgenstein’s Remarks on William Shakespeare

F. R. Leavis’s depreciatory comments on literary critics’ invocation of the aesthetic, and on philosophers’ understanding of language, have reinforced a view of him as hostile to both the aesthetic and philosophical thought. In fact, his criticism exercises a sophisticated appreciation of the aesthetic similar to the philosophical aesthetics that passes through Schiller, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Suzanne Langer; a tradition in which the aesthetic is fundamental to human culture. Leavis’s conception of creativity in language not only underlies his charismatic impact on students and readers but also remains the most plausible rationale for any publicly funded study of literature.


Wittgenstein as Shakespearean critic. Because Wittgenstein’s commentators agree that Shakespeare is the world’s greatest ever playwright, they have to account for those few remarks of his that may suggest a negative evaluation of Shakespeare as a poet. But these remarks can also be used to reveal that Shakespeare is a poet of a kind uniquely different to the majority of those whom Wittgenstein admired. This view is central to John Middleton Murry’s interpretation of Shakespeare and Keats. In a more positive light, he echoes those remarks of Wittgenstein that are often assumed to embody a critical devaluation or “misunderstanding” of Shakespeare’s work.


Recent commentators: Wolfgang Huemer and William Day. If we were even to attempt to understand Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare within the context of our grasp of his philosophy in general, that would be none too easy a thing to do, because it is difficult to understand these remarks, made within the literary context of Culture and Value, as reflections that can make a contribution to an understanding of, say, the Philosophical Investigations, much of which was written during the same period. It is useful to remind ourselves here of the paucity of these remarks, and of the evident fact that had they been written by someone who was not otherwise known within a certain field of expertise, they would perhaps [End Page 297] long ago have disappeared into cold oblivion. As Wolfgang Huemer succinctly tells us:

Culture and Value contains seven remarks on Shakespeare—all the remarks that are present in the Nachlass. All of them stem from Wittgenstein’s late period; the first is dated 1939/40, two are from 1946, and four were written in 1949 and 1950. The remarks do not present themselves as an attempt to propose a systematic interpretation of Shakespeare; they are not organised, and are very general. Wittgenstein does not, for example, mention a single text or quote a single passage, and typically he is more concerned with other people’s reactions to Shakespeare than with the Bard himself.1

Pointing out that Wittgenstein feels “deeply suspicious of Shakespeare’s admirers,” Huemer goes on to say that in Wittgenstein’s eyes Shakespeare is clearly overrated and praised “without understanding & for specious reasons by a thousand professors of literature” (“M,” p. 229, quoting CV, p. 55). Yet Huemer is also careful to mention that when talking of Shakespeare directly, Wittgenstein is much more cautious. When referring to Shakespeare’s similies as being “in the ordinary sense bad,” he qualifies this statement by saying that if they are nevertheless good—a point on which Wittgenstein refuses to commit himself—they must be “a law to themselves.” Yet that “law to themselves” is already a pointer to John Middleton Murry’s interpretation of Shakespeare, which describes him as a poet of a uniquely different kind compared to the majority of others.2

It has actually been stated by Ray Monk that Wittgenstein’s one clear example of a “bad” simile, quoted, we are told, from a conversation with Ben Richards3—an example also discussed by William Day—is what may to some readers seem a rather inventive use of the term “portcullis” as a metaphor for teeth in Mobray’s speech in Richard II: “Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue, Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips.”4 Monk does not actually comment on the worth of this one example, but Day uses it to show that, with this particular case in mind, Wittgenstein could hold his own with Shakespeare by composing similies that are at least as good.5 He is said to do so, for example, when comparing his own writing to using barber’s scissors, which have to keep clipping, even when achieving nothing, so that they may eventually make an appropriate cut (“TNU,” p. 43).

Day’s main point in these passages is that Wittgenstein is attempting to understand why he fails to appreciate Shakespeare, and in Day’s [End Page 298] opinion this does not result from any form of philosophical disagreement or from a feeling on Wittgenstein’s part that Shakespeare’s work lacks philosophical weight. Instead, the failure results from a marked difference in temperament. This is certainly plausible, whatever one thinks about Day’s Cavellian reading, one that would see Wittgenstein drawing our attention to “the threat of skepticism” and the “naturalness and inevitability of tragedy” (“TNU,” p. 41).

Yet neither Monk nor Day mentions that the use of a simile or metaphor by one of Shakespeare’s characters can so often aid our appreciation of the nature of that particular individual within the play. The use of what may seem a “bad” simile can then act as a pointer to the personality of the individual who uses it.

In exactly the same way, it is uncontroversially true that at the level of ordinary dialogue, examples abound in Shakespeare, as in literature generally, of the revelation of character through the expression of belief and desire. No one can possibly forget, for example, the personality of Polonius as revealed by his advice to Laertes in his famous speech on the occasion of his son’s departure from Elsinore, in act 1, scene 3, of Hamlet.

Day also usefully provides his reader with a long paragraph (“TNU,” p. 40) detailing those “criticisms” of Shakespeare that are often understood to be implied by Wittgenstein’s remarks, including the claim that much of the praise given to Shakespeare is made without understanding and for the wrong reasons. Yet this is again balanced by Wittgenstein’s claim that Shakespeare is not like any other poet, that he is more akin to a natural phenomenon who can “sing as the birds sing,” a force of nature at which one can only speechlessly marvel (“TNU,” p. 40). This, however, is once again pointing in the direction of the interpretation that Murry advocates.


Recent commentators: Joachim Schulte’s interpretation. In a stimulating paper, Joachim Schulte encourages us to reflect upon our thinking about Wittgenstein on Shakespeare, by asking ourselves both what kind of remarks Wittgenstein is actually making in these passages from Culture and Value and, even more important, why he should be making them at all. If we actually carry out this procedure properly, we will find that we gain an entirely new perspective on what they are all about: [End Page 299]

What Wittgenstein’s remarks are really about is his own intellectual physiognomy. It is by way of contrast, by comparing certain features of Shakespeare with what he supposes to be characteristic of himself, that he hopes to learn about the limits and potentialities of his own personality.6

Schulte begins his account with the claim that “there is a strange tradition of misunderstanding Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare,” and the first example of this that he provides is Monk’s statement that “Wittgenstein had long been troubled by his inability to appreciate the greatness of Shakespeare” (“DW,” p. 7). Even if we allow for the fact that Monk’s treatment of Wittgenstein on Shakespeare occupies not much more than a page of his biography, Schulte does not explain why this should constitute a “misunderstanding,” given that for most readers it will appear to be little more than a recounting of what Wittgenstein actually says:

It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something that we do not see the truth of for ourselves. When, for instance, I hear the expression of admiration for Shakespeare by distinguished men in the course of several centuries, I can never rid myself of the suspicion that praising him has been the conventional thing to do.7

Wittgenstein goes on to say that “my failure to understand him could then be explained by my inability to read him easily” (CV, p. 49e), and this would certainly appear to confirm rather than put in doubt the truth of what Monk actually says. Schulte also states in a footnote (“DW,” p. 7n1) that Monk reveals further misunderstandings in his presentation, and although he does not specify what these are, we perhaps ought to concentrate on Monk’s reference to Wittgenstein’s dislike of Shakespeare’s metaphors and similies as a reason for questioning his greatness as a poet, and also for his well-known dislike of English culture in general.

The first point has already been covered by the mention of Mobray’s speech and the comparison of teeth to a portcullis, a comparison that Schulte would clearly regard as aesthetically questionable on Wittgenstein’s criteria (“DW,” p. 16n12). Monk’s reference to a dislike of English culture is more serious, however, for Monk goes on to contrast Wittgenstein’s dislike of Shakespeare to his liking for Blake and Dickens: whilst no one could speak of Shakespeare’s great heart, or that he could have seen himself as a prophet or teacher of mankind, or that he was a great human being, in Dickens “Wittgenstein did find an English writer whom he could respect for his ‘good universal art’—in the Tolstoyan [End Page 300] sense of art that is intelligible to everyone, and that espouses Christian virtues” (W, p. 569). Monk tells us that Wittgenstein thought very highly of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a book that he knew by heart and that Tolstoy is said to have placed in the highest category of art flowing from the love of God. According to Monk, it is therefore wholly appropriate that a copy of this book should have been given by Wittgenstein to a friend, Roy Fouracre, as an expression of “his Tolstoyan respect for ‘the common man,’” a respect “exemplified in a simple and straightforward affection for an ordinary working man” (W, p. 569).

There are several important points here, and the first is that whatever sentimental attachment Wittgenstein may or may not have had to a Tolstoyan vision of “the common man” or to “Christian virtues,” this is irrelevant to his assessment of Shakespeare’s role as a poet of a unique kind, no matter how negative that assessment may appear to be. This is in accord with Schulte’s evident agreement (“DW,” p. 8n2) with Huemer’s failure to agree with Steiner, whom he quotes as saying that Wittgenstein objected to Shakespeare because he failed to do the true poet’s job of being a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperiled, bewildered mankind. What Wittgenstein may have been drawn toward at this level is again irrelevant to his intuitive assessment of the nature of Shakespeare’s genius.

The second point of importance relates to the mention of Tolstoy, who was perhaps Shakespeare’s most severe critic. Tolstoy criticizes Shakespeare for a number of reasons, some of which we may nowadays find it difficult to fully appreciate, given that they appear to turn on little more than Tolstoy’s personal vision of the function of literature. Nevertheless, he does mention what he takes to be a fact of some historical significance:

Until the end of the eighteenth century Shakespeare not only failed to gain any special fame in England, but was valued less than his contemporary dramatists: Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Beaumont and others. His fame originated in Germany, and thence was transferred to England.8

Tolstoy then goes on to explain in considerable detail why he believes that to have been the case, and, in a nutshell, he mentions the importance of Goethe, who, in the course of his attempt to overthrow the negative influence of French drama, declared Shakespeare a great poet. Tolstoy, of course, regards that assessment as wholly unwarranted, referring to an “insane worship of Shakespeare that has no rational foundation” (TS, [End Page 301] p. 112). Nevertheless, this is entirely consistent with Schulte’s belief that there can be no justification for the claim that Wittgenstein’s general education would have left him ignorant of Shakespeare’s work, because that work was an integral part of German literary culture during the nineteenth century. Consequently, any suggestion that what Wittgenstein says about Shakespeare rests on an unfamiliarity with the dramas just cannot be true. On the contrary: a familiarity with a wide range of Shakespeare’s plays is necessary if Wittgenstein is to justifiably make the kinds of general statements about Shakespeare and his critics that he actually makes, so it surely must appear that the main question at issue is whether these remarks are indeed justified.


Huemer, Day, and Schulte: A unity of approach? At this point, however, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves that, according to Schulte, this is the wrong question to ask, because we must first of all decide what Wittgenstein is doing by making these remarks at all. Yet in his summing-up, it may appear that what Schulte has to say is not all that different from the conclusion reached by Day that Wittgenstein’s difficulties with Shakespeare result from little more than a marked difference of temperament:

What, then, is the real point of Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare? The answer is that they are part of his conversations with himself: things he says to himself tête-à-tête. For one thing he pursues his struggle to get clearer about himself, his own strengths and weaknesses (especially the latter). In this context, his reflections on Shakespeare present him with an example of a writer who is completely different from himself, perhaps even alien to himself. … Seen from this perspective, Beethoven is the (unreachable) ideal. That is, he is the ideal—the highest point—in the category Wittgenstein takes himself to belong to. Shakespeare, on the other hand, does not belong here at all. That is why one cannot really admire them both.

(“DW,” p. 29)

There is an additional issue here that for Schulte lies beyond a simple matter of difference in temperament: the issue of standards of excellence. Wittgenstein believes that only first-class work is really worth doing, and the standards to which he appeals in judging the quality of that work apply more readily within the arts than they do within philosophy; and within the arts they are met only by a “small and fairly [End Page 302] well circumscribed group of people” (“DW,” p. 29), a group to which Shakespeare, in Wittgenstein’s eyes, fails to belong. This reading of Schulte’s, in general terms, is again similar to one offered by Huemer:

Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare can give us an important key for reading the occasional references to poets, composers, and other exponents of Western culture which we find in his Nachlass. Wittgenstein, I will argue, often uses the names of these individuals to stake out his own cultural background, to show the reader something about himself, as it were, as if he wanted to sketch a portrait of (some aspects of) himself.9

On this reading, Wittgenstein is using the names of poets and composers, not really to say anything directly about the individuals whose names they are, but instead to invoke within his presumably cultured readership a certain “aroma or atmosphere” that points toward his own cultural background, “and, in consequence, his philosophy” (“CN,” p. 23). Huemer concludes:

Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare are not primarily about Shakespeare, his works or his admirers. … In the broader context of his overall Nachlass … they are but a stone in a large mosaic of cultural references that often just play with the “aroma” or “character” that accompanies the names mentioned. This mosaic provides a key for those who recognise the lock and allows them to get a better and more comprehensive picture of Wittgenstein’s cultural background, his mentality and his intellectual personality.

(“CN,” p. 36)


Wittgenstein’s remarks are really about Shakespeare. While these accounts certainly do direct us toward important truths about Wittgenstein’s perception of how he differed from Shakespeare, the authors’ tendency to propose that his remarks are not really about Shakespeare but rather about something else—for example, his own personality, cultural perspective, or philosophy in the most general terms—can be accounted for almost entirely by the fact that philosophers feel that they must “come to terms” with remarks that are difficult to reconcile with either an acceptance of Wittgenstein’s critical acumen or with a general agreement about the greatness of Shakespeare as a poet. Yet if we take these remarks rather more at face value, they bear a remarkable similarity to an account of Shakespeare’s greatness proposed by Murry: [End Page 303]

What is really at issue is two opposed conceptions of the poetic nature. Both these conceptions of the poetic nature are founded on fact: poets have belonged to both kinds. The question is to which kind Shakespeare belonged. And, with a negative or positive emphasis, the acknowledgement from those best qualified to make it has been almost from the beginning that Shakespeare belonged to a very rare and peculiar kind of poets. Ben Jonson, with the negative emphasis, maintained that Shakespeare “wanted art”; Milton gave to what is essentially the same judgement the positive inflection … when he said that the flow of Shakespeare’s easy numbers was the shame of slow endeavouring art.

(S, p. 24)

What Wittgenstein shares with Jonson is indeed that “negative emphasis,” as captured, for example, in his claim that his inability to understand Shakespeare arises from his wish to find symmetry in all this asymmetry:

His pieces give me an impression as of enormous sketches rather than of paintings; as though they had been dashed off by someone who can permit himself anything, so to speak. And I understand how someone can admire that and call it supreme art, but I don’t like it—so if someone stands in front of these pieces speechless, I can understand him; but anyone who admires them as one admires, say, Beethoven, seems to me to misunderstand Shakespeare.

(CV, p. 86e)

This comparison to Beethoven is Wittgenstein’s expression of Murry’s “two opposed conceptions of the poetic nature.” Wittgenstein instinctively refers to this again when he mentions his belief that Shakespeare cannot be set alongside any other poet (CV, p. 84e). He then asks whether Shakespeare was perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet, and that expresses Murry’s positive claim “that Shakespeare’s want of art was not a defect but a quality: that his art was indeed beyond art, and in some mysterious way a second nature” (S, p. 24). That concept of a second nature is indirectly referred to by Wittgenstein when he reflects that Shakespeare, unlike other poets, could perhaps have said of himself, “I sing as the birds sing” (CV, p. 84e). Again, Murry:

That Shakespeare should belong to a different kind from poets whom we recognise as great poets is an almost alarming paradox; it seems to threaten the sanity of those who are compelled to the opinion. Yet it is precisely the great poets themselves who have been most strongly inclined to it. They seem to have felt that whereas they themselves were always to some degree deliberate, Shakespeare was not.

(S, p. 25) [End Page 304]

The “lack of deliberation” referred to here is captured by Wittgenstein in his reference to sketches that have been dashed off, sketches that have every appearance of having been composed without the conscious deliberation required for what is truly great art, as found, for example, in the works of Beethoven.

Murry expands on this point by taking his reflections on Shakespeare considerably further than Wittgenstein. He suggests that there are times in Hamlet when it is not merely the man Hamlet who can be said to be occupying the stage. When, for example, Hamlet shrugs his shoulders upon mentioning toward the end of the play, “Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but it is no matter,”10 Murry describes our reaction to this passage in terms of our willingness to say that “the wind of life … has dropped in the sails of the splendid ship” (S, p. 19). That it is not merely the individual man that is at issue here is captured by Murry in what we can understand to be a reference to the role that the play Hamlet—incorporating the figure of Hamlet—performs in Shakespeare’s oeuvre:

At such a moment we feel it is not man who hesitates, but Man; and Man in the sense of Goethe’s saying that “Man is the first speech that Nature holds with God.”

(S, p. 19)

If the point being made here appears to be a difficult one, as it surely is, then perhaps it can be better understood if it is seen within the same context as that famous comment of A. C. Bradley (brother of the metaphysician F. H. Bradley) that “only Hamlet, of all Shakespeare’s characters, could have written Shakespeare’s plays” (quoted in S, p. 24).

While there may be an element of truth in the suggestion, espoused by Monk, that Wittgenstein was sentimentally drawn to Dickens rather than Shakespeare because Dickens manifestly plays the role of “a prophet or as a teacher of mankind,” someone who promoted specific “Christian virtues,” Wittgenstein intuitively recognized that Shakespeare was a poet of a quite distinct order. He cannot “be set alongside any other poet”; he was a “force of nature,” a “spectacular natural phenomenon,” “the supple hand that created new natural linguistic forms,” and certainly not a great human being (CV, pp. 84e, 85e). Indeed, that Shakespeare’s greatness cannot be thought to be reflected in his plays by his presenting a “conventional morality” is something that Murry understands to be a further positive aspect of this art. To enter Shakespeare’s world is instead to enter a vortex, the “chaos of the world of order and of moral law in which men long to believe” (S, p. 19): [End Page 305]

Of such a world Shakespeare eventually knows nothing, or spares nothing. And perhaps the most impressive and unremitting effort of Shakespeare criticism has been to demonstrate that this is otherwise: that in some form or fashion, and often in a sadly commonplace form or fashion, conventional morality is at the heart of Shakespeare’s world.

(S, p. 19)

What Murry is ultimately presenting here is an understanding of Shakespeare’s world as we find it, in Wittgenstein’s terms, “within the whole corpus of his plays.” Murry’s assessment is summed up in the claim that, in Shakespeare’s world, omnia abeunt in mysterium (all things lead to a mystery) (S, p. 18). What may seem so extraordinary is that Wittgenstein does recognize this aspect of Shakespeare’s art for what it is, even if in so doing he more than occasionally vacillates slightly before settling on Murry’s wholly “negative emphasis.” If we wish, we are free to see that “negative emphasis,” as Huemer, Day, and Schulte indicate, as a reflection of a difference of temperament, a difference identified by Murry as that between the poet who has a self and the poet, like Shakespeare, who has none. This cannot possibly mean that Shakespeare is a monster of objectivity who views the creations of his imagination sub specie aeternitatis, as creatures with whom he is completely uninvolved.11 Indeed, Murry uses his understanding of Keats’s notion of “negative capability”—relating to that poetical character of the type to which Keats took himself to belong, the character who has no self—to explain the point, claiming that in Keats it finds its greatest expression in his Odes, which are Shakespearean in the relevant sense (S, p. 15). Keats’s “To Autumn” is perhaps his prime example of the expression of this negative capability.

The significant feature of Wittgenstein’s reaction to this kind of poetry as it finds its expression in the works of Shakespeare is that he is not drawn to it and “does not like it,” because he is drawn instead to works that express the personality of a complete human being. This leads him understandably to see the “greatness” of Shakespeare, insofar as he can perceive it at all, as something that is expressed in the totality of his creation, and so “in the whole corpus of his plays,” which become “unrealistic” and “like a dream” because they “create their own language and world” (CV, p. 83e). Their value would therefore lie in their being segregated from what is truly great art as deliberately conceived and created by figures like Beethoven and, certainly, by those Austrian and German writers and poets whose works he admired. We are therefore free to see Wittgenstein’s reflections on Shakespeare, as Day, Schulte, [End Page 306] and Huemer would have it, as expressions of his cultural background, personality, or temperament in the most general terms. But if the viewpoint expressed by Murry offers a valuable contribution to our understanding of Shakespeare, Wittgenstein’s remarks also reveal an important insight into the kind of poet Shakespeare was, and so into the nature of the works that he created.

Derek McDougall
Culloden, Scotland


1. Wolfgang Huemer, “Misreadings: Steiner and Lewis on Wittgenstein and Shakespeare,” Philosophy and Literature 36, no. 1 (April 2012): 229; hereafter abbreviated “M.” See also George Steiner, “A Reading Against Shakespeare,” in No Passion Spent. Essays 1970–1995 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996); and Peter B. Lewis, “Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare,” Philosophy and Literature 29, no. 2 (October 2005): 241–55.

2. See J. Middleton Murry, Shakespeare (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936); hereafter abbreviated S.

3. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein (London: Vintage, 1990), p. 568; hereafter abbreviated W.

4. William Shakespeare, Richard II, Folger Shakespeare Library, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 2005), p. 37, 1.3.168–69.

5. William Day, “To Not Understand, but Not Misunderstand: Wittgenstein on Shakespeare,” in Wittgenstein Reading, ed. Sascha Bru, Wolfgang Huemer, and Daniel Steuer (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 43; hereafter abbreviated “TNU.”

6. Joachim Schulte, “Did Wittgenstein Write on Shakespeare?” Nordic Wittgenstein Review, No. 2 (2013): 7; hereafter abbreviated “DW.”

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), p. 48e; hereafter abbreviated CV.

8. Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy on Shakespeare: A Critical Essay on Shakespeare, trans. V. G. Chertkov and Isabella Fyvie Mayo (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906), p. 103; hereafter abbreviated TS.

9. Wolfgang Huemer, “The Character of a Name: Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Shakespeare,” in Bru, Huemer, and Steuer, Wittgenstein Reading, p. 23; hereafter abbreviated “CN.” Huemer refers to Marjorie Perloff’s assessment of Wittgenstein as an Austrian writer with a place in a German nineteenth-century culture that saw Shakespeare as a mysterious natural genius “beyond” the characters that he created (p. 34). See Marjorie Perloff, “Wittgenstein’s Shakespeare,” Wittgenstein-Studien 5, no. 1 (March 2014): 259–72.

10. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Folger Shakespeare Library, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 2004), p. 271, 5.2.226–27. [End Page 307]

11. It is simply not credible, as Schulte puts it pace his interpretation of the outlook of Wittgenstein, that Shakespeare could have produced works that are “the effortless products of a being who creates these plays in a mood of splendid indifference” (“DW,” p. 17). But to discuss this question adequately would be to stray far beyond the immediate concerns of this essay. [End Page 308]